Author Linda Nathan discusses new book, higher education accessibility

Author and educator Linda Nathan is pictured speaking about her book "When Grit Isn't Enough" at Tufts University on Sept. 13. Rachel Hartman / The Tufts Daily

Author and educator Linda Nathan gave a talk on her latest book, “When Grit Isn’t Enough: A High School Principal Examines How Poverty and Inequality Thwart the College-for-all Promise” in the Olin Center’s Laminan Lounge on Thursday night.

The Department of Education-sponsored talk focused on how the themes Nathan examines in the book and in her research relate to the failures of higher education when it comes to supporting low-income and first-generation students. Tufts students and faculty, as well as staff from the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and the financial aid office, attended the two-hour event.

Nathan’s presentation lasted about 45 minutes and was followed by 30 minutes for questions, as well as time for book purchasing and signing.

David Hammer, the Department of Education chair, began the event by introducing Nathan and her research, as well as her credentials in education. Nathan was the founding headmaster of Boston Arts Academy (BAA) and remains on its Board of Trustees, and she is currently executive director at the Dorchester-based Center for Artistry and Scholarship.

“Something I appreciated about [Nathan’s book] is the care to attend to individuals who each have these particular stories,” Hammer said.

Nathan began the talk by addressing her background as an educator and a headmaster at BAA, and how her experience at a high-performing high school revealed the ways that colleges can fail students of color, students from low-income families and first-generation students.

Nathan explained that she wrote the book because she was frustrated with both the lack of understanding and the inequity these students face as they transition into higher education and face the financial burdens that come with it.

“We continue to assume that deep social inequities can be overcome by individual effort, by grit — everyone will have an equal chance at success if we just work harder,” Nathan said. “But it’s not just about grit.”

In writing her book, Nathan interviewed 90 young people — including several Boston Arts Academy alumni — on their experiences and difficulties adapting to college. For some of the students who failed to graduate, Nathan wanted to understand why they dropped out. 

“When Grit Isn’t Enough” addresses five of Nathan’s so-called “assumptions” of higher education: that money doesn’t have to be an obstacle; that race doesn’t matter; that just working harder is all it takes; that college is for everyone; and that simply believing in oneself makes their dreams come true. Her presentation focused on three of these assumptions.

She began with the first assumption, reading excerpts from her book that detailed the experiences of students who left college due to financial barriers. One student had to drop out because he forgot to complete his financial aid paperwork.

“We, as educators in higher ed, need to understand the fragility that poverty creates,” Nathan said. “Students literally made avoidable errors that derailed their college plans.”

In offering potential solutions to this issue, Nathan stressed the necessity of advisors to hold students accountable through these processes, as well as the inequity of programs like summer classes that are not covered by financial aid. She also urged secondary educators to check in with recent high school graduates and to continue encouraging them to complete their higher education.

“We need a more holistic conversation between higher-ed leaders, high school principals, guidance counselors, non-profit funders and leaders … about the kinds of support our kids need to ensure that money is not an obstacle,” Nathan said.

Nathan then addressed the assumption that race doesn’t matter in higher-ed settings. She told a story of several students who experienced loneliness on campuses that had few other students of color.

“This kind of isolation is something that many first-generation college-goers feel, and race adds another kind of isolation,” Nathan said.

She advised colleges to provide opportunities for students of color to find community and belonging on campus, in addition to creating “Student Success Offices” for students coming from underrepresented backgrounds.

Nathan then urged the audience to shift away from the narrative that college is for everyone and instead embrace the notion that individuals can find success and dignity even without a college degree. She acknowledged that a key part of this change is preparing high school students who will not go to college for the workforce and pointed to programs that incorporate internships and work experience into the high school curriculum as one such method.

“That, to me, is much more of the way that I’d like to see high schools work — that kids have the opportunity to play with ideas and passions while in high school,” she said.

Nathan closed her presentation with a message of hope, encouraging positive change in secondary school to create a more equitable college experience.

“I think if we take creativity as a solution, we might find a way to truly improve our schools,” she said. “I hope that the things that I’ve written about and the stories I’ve told will also give you hope to keep fighting.”

In a question-and-answer session at the end of her presentation, Nathan responded to questions about the failures of “No Excuses” pedagogy, the reality of imposter syndrome and the need for financially accessible mental health services. She also outlined her wishes for future high school curriculums and explained how low-income and first-generation college students can find support from their peers.

When one student asked Nathan to suggest ways that high-income students could support their peers facing financial burdens, Nathan directed the question back at the student and encouraged her to consider the ways that she hoped to see privileged students help their peers succeed.